Which Word Wednesday: Anticipate vs. Expect

By October 13, 2010 culture, language No Comments

When it comes to word quandaries, we’ve seen again and again here at Which Word Wednesday that proper usage is directly related to context.

And there’s the rub.

Context is difficult to ascertain mid-sentence. We cannot grasp the correct word for the context so we insert whatever word is at the ready. When the improper word is applied often enough, the definition morphs into its common usage, even if common usage is incorrect. [sigh.]

But that’s what Which Word Wednesday is all about—looking at word usage and considering which words we are misusing. It’s an etymological quest!

This week’s quest for linguistic correctness is all about context. The duel is between anticipate and expect. Let’s start with the definitions of these two verbs from the Oxford American Dictionary:

anticipate :: verb
regard as probable; expect or predict

expect :: verb
regard (something) as likely to happen

Both of these verbs are forward looking terms. And they are hardly distinguishable to me! One regards a probable situation, the other a likely situation . . . is probable more certain than likely? That’s what seems to be implied.

Let’s also look to Dave Dowling’s opinion1 in his book The Wrong Word Dictionary to see if he can help.

Dowling says anticipate should be used to describe something you foresee and then prepare for. He gives this sample sentence:

The college anticipates a large enrollment jump next year.

So, does that mean they will start building more dorms and hiring more professors? That’s what anticipate suggests—you foresee and then prepare. I think the sample sentence needs more detail for it to make anticipate distinct!

For expect, Dowling describes it as a looking forward to something that’s a likely occurrence, giving this sample sentence:

The college expects most of the senior class to get job offers.

My only guess is that because this scenario does not require any forward-looking preparations by the speaker, expect is a better choice than anticipate.

I’m not quite sure how to keep these straight. Perhaps anticipate is something that will occur, so I need to prepare for it, and expect is more like an assumption about something that’s is likely to occur but not guaranteed.

[polldaddy poll=3916450]

How I want to be LC (linguistically correct)! I’m just not sure I can get it done in this case. Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome.

My WWW verdict? Perhaps these words should be used for distinct situations, but it’s doubtful I will be able to get them straight. I anticipate difficulty and apologize now for my foreseeable misuse. I expect most of you will graciously forgive me. [Thanks!]

What’s your verdict? Will you attempt to use these words as Dowling defines? Do share! And cast your vote in the poll—I’m curious how many are on the LC quest.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005), 34.

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